×

Column: Rechargeable batteries and landfills don’t mix

  • Isauro Flores-Hernandez takes apart used smartphones and tablets for a living at Cascade Asset Management, an electronics scrap processor in Madison, Wis. MUST CREDIT: Washington post photo by Geoffrey A. Fowler.



For the Valley News
Friday, May 24, 2019

You drop your cellphone. The screen cracks as it hits the pavement. The phone’s a goner so you toss it in the trash. Eventually, it ends up in the landfill.

“I run that over and poof, we have a fire,” said Ray Becker, a heavy-equipment operator at the Lebanon landfill. Fortunately, he keeps a fire extinguisher on his compactor, and his co-workers and the Lebanon Fire Department are now used to the drill.

Lebanon has had seven incidents like this since July. Nationwide, solid waste facilities have seen a 40% increase in reported fires over the past year, said Marc Morgan, a manager in Lebanon’s Solid Waste Department. Much of that is due to the improper disposal of lithium-ion batteries.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries were a technological breakthrough. They hold a lot of energy in a small, lightweight package. Unlike nickel-cadmium (NiCd) batteries, they don’t have a “memory,” so recharging them before they run down completely doesn’t affect their energy capacity.

But lithium-ion batteries have the potential to explode or catch fire when they overheat, are damaged or are improperly manufactured. Think Hoverboards and Samsung Galaxy Note 7 cellphones. Following a three-year investigation, officials finally determined that the crash of a UPS cargo flight in Dubai in 2010 was due to some of the 81,000 lithium-type batteries it was carrying auto-igniting.

The Lebanon landfill’s first battery-related fire was started by a “jump pack” containing a lithium-ion battery that weighed a little more than a pound. “It’s got enough power to jump start your car several times, over and over and over,” Becker said. So when that battery is compacted by heavy equipment, it’s not surprising that it bursts into flames.

Today, lithium-ion batteries power all kinds of electronic devices, including cellphones, digital cameras, tablets and laptops. When those items break or are replaced with newer devices, the batteries need to be removed and disposed of properly.

“It’s a huge safety issue,” Morgan said.

With all of the combustible materials mixed in with the trash, a landfill fire could burn for days once it starts. In Lebanon, there is the added hazard of igniting a system of methane collection pipes that run throughout the landfill.

“We don’t think about what we’re throwing away,” Morgan said. “It would be helpful if people would think it through, particularly on these batteries, because they are dangerous.”

After removing lithium-ion batteries from electronic devices, anyone from any town can deposit the batteries through the red door at the Lebanon Recycling Center. The Hartford Recycling Center accepts batteries from residents of Hartford and the other 10 Vermont towns it serves.

Both recycling centers will also accept all other types of rechargeable batteries, including NiCd. While not a fire hazard, if these batteries end up in the landfill, they pose the risk of leaching heavy metals into the groundwater.

NiCd batteries are commonly found in older cordless power tools. If you can’t make it to one of the recycling centers, rechargeable batteries that weigh up to 11 pounds can be dropped off in a collection bin at the entryway of Home Depot.

Although not rechargeable, some button batteries do contain mercury. To keep mercury out of the landfill, both the Lebanon and Hartford Recycling Centers will accept button batteries, as well as thermostats and thermometers.

For more information on the proper disposal of batteries, visit Lebanon’s website at lebanonnh.gov/834/How-Do-I-Get-Rid-of and Hartford’s website at hartford-vt.org/2378/Recycling-and-Waste-Disposal.

Barbara Slaiby, of Lebanon, is an environmental educator.